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Preseason Power Rankings No. 16: San Diego Chargers

Philip Rivers AP

The 2013 Chargers earned the AFC’s final wild card berth on the final day of the regular season, and were they ever the definition of a wild card.

Of the Chargers’ seven losses a season ago, six were by one score or less. They were 5-2 against playoff clubs but a mere 4-5 against also-rans, including defeats to Oakland, Washington and Houston.

But in the end, San Diego got hot at the right time, winning four in a row to end the regular season. Then, in the postseason, the Chargers proved they belonged, upsetting the favored Bengals in Cincinnati and putting up a fight in a loss at Denver in the divisional round.

In all, it was a successful first season for Chargers head coach Mike McCoy, who oversaw a club that always seemed to give itself a chance to win. And was it ever a splendid return to top form for quarterback Philip Rivers, who again looked like one of the best in his profession.

In some ways, the Chargers might have been ahead of schedule a season ago. The question is, what growth are they capable of this time around?

Strengths.

The Chargers’ offense is formidable. Rivers was fun to watch in 2013, completing nearly 70 percent of his passes and ranking near the top of the NFL in passing yards gained per attempt (8.2). He was sacked 19 fewer times in 2013 than in the previous campaign (30 vs. 49), which speaks well of McCoy’s scheme and the work of the offensive line, which stepped up its play.

No team was better on third downs than the Chargers, and no quarterback may have been better than Rivers in such situations. Per STATS LLC, Rivers converted first downs on a league-high 49.4 percent of his passing attempts (77-of-156).

Rivers has multiple capable targets. Second-year wide receiver Keenan Allen starred as a rookie, hauling in 71 passes for 1,046 yards and eight touchdowns. Tight end Antonio Gates (77 catches, 872 yards, four TDs) is a key security blanket for Rivers, as is tailback Danny Woodhead (76 catches, 605 yards, six TDs). Wide receivers Malcom Floyd, Vincent Brown and Eddie Royal and tight end Ladarius Green will also get their shots to contribute, too.

The Chargers’ running game is no slouch, either. Lead back Ryan Mathews racked up 1,255 yards a season ago in a career-best campaign. Ex-Colt Donald Brown gives San Diego another starter-caliber rusher behind Mathews. In addition to his pass catching, Woodhead can chip in a few carries per game.

Finally, the Chargers’ defense appears stronger than a season ago. Free safety Eric Weedle is a standout, while ex-Chiefs cornerback Brandon Flowers could be just what the secondary needs. Defensive end Corey Liguet (12.5 combined sacks in the last two seasons), inside linebacker Donald Butler and outside linebacker Melvin Ingram are nice defensive foundation pieces for now and the future.

Weaknesses.

The Chargers allowed more yards per rush and per pass than any other AFC a team a season ago. Even if San Diego’s defense is better — and it should be, with Flowers arriving and Ingram and Dwight Freeney returning from injury-shortened campaigns — this isn’t a shutdown group by any stretch.

The play of the outside linebackers will be key for the Chargers. Liguet (5.5 sacks) paced the club in sacks in 2013, with fellow end Kendall Reyes finishing second with five sacks. For a club employing a 3-4 base scheme like San Diego, the outside ‘backers must generate some pressure off the edges.

On offense, the play of the Chargers’ line still bears some monitoring, even after the improvements made a season ago.

Changes.

The Chargers’ most important changes could come in the secondary, where Flowers and first-round pick Jason Verrett should bolster the cornerback corps. Those additions came after the club cut ties with corner Derek Cox, who struggled in his lone season in San Diego.

The Chargers have a new offensive coordinator, with Frank Reich replacing Ken Whisenhunt, who became the Titans’ head coach. San Diego has also made a change at backup quarterback, with Kellen Clemens (ex-St. Louis) signing on to replace Charlie Whitehurst, who followed Whisenhunt to Tennessee.

The Chargers’ RB depth chart is a little more crowded with the addition of Donald Brown, who led the Colts in rushing a season ago. He effectively replaces Ronnie Brown as one of the club’s top three backs.

Camp battles.

Several positions bear watching:

—   Right guard: Incumbent Jeromey Clary comes off shoulder and hip surgery; can third-round pick Chris Watt push him for the job?

—   Cornerback: Flowers, Verrett and holdovers Shareece Wright and Richard Marshall are the top four options at the position. Flowers seems likely to garner a major role, but how quickly will Verrett adjust to the NFL game?

—   Running back: How will the reps be split between Mathews, Woodhead and Brown?

—   Nose tackle: Sean Lissemore, Ryan Carrethers and Kwame Geathers are among the options. Cam Thomas, one of the regulars at the position a season ago, signed with Pittsburgh.

—   Outside linebacker: There could be some healthy competition here, with Ingram, Freeney, Larry English, Jarret Johnson, Thomas Keiser and rookie Jeremiah Attaochu all in the mix for work.

Prospects.

The Chargers’ schedule is both inviting and challenging, with the biggest tests right out of the gate and down the stretch.

The Chargers begin with a pair of challenging out-of-conference games at Arizona and vs. Seattle. A 0-2 start is quite possible, given the degree of difficulty of those matchups.

Then comes a five-game run that could ultimately make or break the Chargers’ season. The next five opponents — the Bills (away), Jets (home), Jaguars (home), Raiders (away) and Chiefs (home) — are all conference opponents ranked behind San Diego in PFT’s preseason power rankings. Here’s a chance for the Chargers to stack up some important AFC wins — and they must do so.

Similarly, the Chargers need to make hay in the early part of November. They begin the month at Miami (Nov. 2), then take their bye. Then comes home games vs. Oakland (Nov. 16) and St. Louis (Nov. 23). The Chargers may have to sweep this three-game stretch, considering their next five games — their final of the campaign — are at Baltimore, home vs. New England, home vs. Denver, at San Francisco and at Kansas City.

In all, the schedule seems a perfect test for the Chargers. If their offense remains potent and efficient, and if their defense has improved, the Chargers could get rolling, and they could prove a challenging matchup for anyone, even those strong outfits they face in the final weeks.

The Chargers didn’t blink in tough situations a season ago, which makes them all the more intriguing in 2014. But can they move forward? It probably comes down to whether they can get a few more stops on “D.” They are going to score their share of points.

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Richard Sherman appears to enjoy Darrelle Revis getting taken out on Doug Baldwin touchdown

Super Bowl XLIX - New England Patriots v Seattle Seahawks Getty Images

In the weeks leading up to the Super Bowl, Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman didn’t spend much time rehashing his old debate with Darrelle Revis about which one of them was the best cornerback in the NFL.

It doesn’t look like Revis was too far from his mind, though. After Doug Baldwin caught a touchdown to put the Seahawks ahead 24-14 in the third quarter of the Super Bowl, NBC’s cameras caught Sherman mouthing “24” to the cameras while making out a “2” and a “4” with his fingers.

It’s possible that Sherman was just ecstatic about the particular score that the Seahawks had achieved, but it seems more than coincidental that his performance came after Revis was covering Baldwin on the touchdown. Baldwin’s route ran Revis right into the umpire, leaving the Seahawks wideout wide open for a big touchdown in the second half of the game.

A tough break for Revis gave Sherman reason to gloat a little bit, although there’s plenty of football for both corners to play before the book is closed on this one.

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Doug Baldwin draws post-touchdown flag

Baldwin Getty Images

After leaving Patriots cornerback Darrelle Revis in the dust, it appeared that Seahawks receiver Doug Baldwin pretended to take a dump.

It’s still unclear precisely what Baldwin did after scoring. Whatever it was, he drew a flag for it, with 15 yards applied on the kickoff.

In real time, Baldwin seemed to pretend to pull down his pants, a la Randy Moss more than a decade ago during a postseason game at Lambeau Field. Moss pretended to moon the crowd, and he then rubbed his rump against the goal post, prompting FOX’s Joe Buck to declare it to be a “disgusting act.”

The common thread? Cris Collinsworth worked as an analyst in both games. So he has that going for him. Which is nice.

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Cliff Avril exits with concussion

avril AP

Seahawks defensive end Cliff Avril exited the Super Bowl in the third quarter and will not be back.

The Seahawks have confirmed that Avril is being evaluated for a concussion. If he is in fact diagnosed with a concussion, he will not be permitted to return, under NFL rules.

It looked scary when Avril went down face first and remained motionless on the field, and Seattle’s medical staff sprinted onto the field to check on him. Avril was able to get up and walk off under his own power, and he headed to the locker room to get checked out.

If Avril can’t return, the Seahawks will miss him. The good news for Seattle is that defensive end Michael Bennett is having an excellent game, continually pressuring Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. Without Avril, Seattle will need even more from Bennett.

UPDATE 9:17 p.m. ET: Avril is out for the game with a concussion.

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Seahawks pick Brady again, turn it into a 24-14 lead

Super Bowl Football AP

The Seahawks continue to get pressure on Tom Brady, and he’s looking surprisingly human.

Brady just threw his second interception of the game, this time to Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wager.

And the Seahawks made them pay for it quickly, with Russell Wilson hitting a wide open Doug Baldwin for a 24-14 lead.

While the Patriots have adopted a quick-passing approach to this game, the Seahawks are still making him hurry in the pocket, with Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril forcing him to speed it up even more.

And with the Seahawks able to lean on their running game to get them in position, they’re going to make it harder for the Patriots to get multiple possessions.

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Seahawks seize their first lead of the night

Matthews Getty Images

After a first half in which it seemed at times as if the Patriots were poised to win Super Bowl XLIX easily, the Patriots now don’t even hold the lead.

Fueled by a 45-yard reception from the previously little-known Chris Matthews, the Seahawks have scored three more points on the first drive of the third quarter. Seattle now is ahead for the first time all night, 17-14.

It seemed that another touchdown was inevitable after the long catch from the undrafted wideout who had no career grabs before tonight put Seattle on New England’s 17. But the Patriots stiffened, keeping Marshawn Lynch from getting to the sticks on third down and forcing a 27-yard field goal.

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Gronkowski gives Pats lead, but Seahawks strike back quickly

Super Bowl Football AP

The Patriots appeared to have grabbed a lead just before halftime, moving quickly downfield as they continue to peck away at the Seahawks Defense.

But the Seahawks were even quicker, and we’re tied at halftime of the Super Bowl.

An eight-play, 80-yard drive was capped by a 22-yard touchdown to tight end Rob Gronkowski, who was matched up on Seahawks linebacker K.J. Wright.

Not only did it give them a 14-7 lead at halftime, but it allowed Brady to tie Joe Montana with his 11th Super Bowl touchdown pass.

They’re actually averaging 5.7 yards per play, though they’re working quickly to try to negate the Seahawks pass rush.

Short passes are turning into run-after-catch opportunities, and the Seahawks have made just enough mistakes allow long drives.

The Seahawks drove in the final 30 seconds of the half, taking advantage of a Kyle Arrington facemask penalty, and driving 80 yards in five plays.

With six seconds left in the half, Chris Matthews tied the game with an 11-yard touchdown pass into the corner of the end zone.

It was a risky play-call, but it’s the Super Bowl.

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Seahawks tie it up

Lynch AP

The Seahawks woke up a lot earlier than they did two Sundays ago.

To cap a drive that started with quarterback Russell Wilson having not completed a pass all game, Wilson connected on a pair of throws en route to a three-yard touchdown run from tailback Marshawn Lynch. The game currently is tied at the two-minute warning in the first half, 7-7.

The score was set up by a 44-yard rainbow from Wilson to receiver Chris Matthews. The man who recovered the onside kick in Seattle’s thrilling come-from-way-behind win over Green Bay made his first career catch, securing the ball with both hands while preventing it from popping out of his control upon hitting the ground.

The drive was kept alive before the long throw by a six-yard pass from Wilson to receiver Jermaine Kearse.

Lynch currently has 12 carries for 45 yards, including the game-tying touchdown.

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Brandon LaFell gives Patriots a 7-0 lead in second quarter

Super Bowl Football AP

Tom Brady’s willing to play small ball, and the Seahawks finally yielded a play.

Brady just hit Brandon LaFell for an 11-yard touchdown pass to give the Patriots a 7-0 lead.

With cornerback Jeremy Lane doubtful to return with an arm injury, Brady was picking on backup cornerback Tharold Simon. Julian Edelamn got inside Simon for a 23-yard gain on a crossing route, setting up the score.

Brady took one shot over the top to Rob Gronkowski (which could have easily been called for offensive pass interference when Gronk clubbed Kam Chancellor in the head), but otherwise the Patriots are willing to dink, dunk and run their way downfield.

The Seahawks haven’t completed a pass yet today, and they’re clearly going to need to find something through the air soon.

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Jeremy Lane injures arm, leaves game after interception

brady AP

Seahawks cornerback Jeremy Lane made a big play in the first quarter of the Super Bowl, but it may have been his last play.

Lane landed awkwardly on his left arm after intercepting a Tom Brady pass and stayed on the ground for a few minutes. He eventually had an air cast put on his arm and then walked to a cart, where he rode to the locker room.

The Seahawks announced that Lane is doubtful to return to the game.

Lane was the subject of some scrutiny during the run-up to the Super Bowl after he said he doesn’t think Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski is a good player. By picking off a pass in the first quarter, Lane showed that he can play as well as talk. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like he’ll get to show anything else today.

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Tom Brady with the game’s first turnover, to Jeremy Lane

Super Bowl Football AP

The Patriots were willing to use jabs early in this fight.

But the Seahawks came up with the first good cross.

Jeremy Lane just picked off Tom Brady in the end zone, to end a methodical 13-play Patriots drive.

With both Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett converging on Brady, his pass to Julian Edelman was rushed just enough to force the turnover.

The Seahawks take over on their own 14, after a three-and-out on their opening drive.

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Brady’s interview contains no unequivocal denials

Brady AP

Yes, the Super Bowl has begun.  But the #DeflateGate controversy will continue.  In addition to the flurry of reports that emerged on Sunday regarding the pending investigation, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady’s interview with Bob Costas of NBC’s Football Night in America has become yet another piece in a puzzle that will, at some point, be pieced together into a picture that reveals cheating or not cheating.

The full interview appears below.  The last question is the most important one, with Costas giving Brady a clear chance to say that Brady had no prior knowledge of any intentional tampering with the footballs.

“What I hear you saying is,” Costas said, “no matter what may or may not have happened, you had no prior knowledge of it.”

Brady didn’t simply agree with what Costas said and move on.  Brady offered a lengthy explanation.

“I — you know, look, I’ve talked about that in the past, and I don’t want that to continue to be a story about this particular game,” Brady said.  “All the facts will come out after the Super Bowl, and however those facts come out, you know, that will be news to me as well.  So that process will all take place at some point.  I’m excited about the Super Bowl, and that’s where my energy is.  I think there was a little bit of an energy drain, like I said, with my emotions and feelings being involved earlier in the week, but, you know, I’ve got to be able to move past those things and compartmentalize those things, and be mentally tough enough to go out there and try to shine through.”

Like so many other aspects of this controversy, those inclined to believe the Patriots will claim that Brady essentially denied having prior knowledge by saying “however those facts come out, you know, that will be news to me as well.”  Those inclined to suspect cheating will say Brady’s failure to offer an unequivocal denial could be aimed at providing a safe harbor in the event that, for example, someone has confessed to deflating the footballs and has claimed Brady knew.

Either way, the issue will linger for as long as it takes for the NFL to conclude its investigation, to generate a report, and to impose discipline, if any.  Chances are that, regardless of the outcome, the issue will linger well beyond the moment the NFL officially closes the books on #DeflateGate.

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Neither offense can get much going on the first drive

bradyball AP

The Seahawks’ defense got the Super Bowl off to a good start. And so did the Seahawks’ fans.

New England received the opening kickoff but was forced to punt after picking up just 17 yards and one first down. Of perhaps equal importance to Seattle is that the Seahawks’ fans are making their presence known, with crowd noise already a factor. In last year’s Super Bowl, the Broncos were taken aback by their need to use silent snap counts because of the “12s,” and it appears that just as many Seahawks fans have made the trip to this year’s Super Bowl.

But those Seahawks fans didn’t have much to cheer about on Seattle’s first drive, as the Seahawks went three-and-out. Now we’ll see if the Patriots can shrug off the crowd noise, and give their own fans something to cheer about.

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PFT Planet’s Super Bowl XLIX prop bet plays

Las Vegas Strip Exteriors Getty Images

In the lead-up to Super Bowl XLIX, we asked PFT Planet to make a call on 10 proposition bets. Here’s how you voted. Check back Monday when we grade the results:

Day I: Over-Under on Brandon LaFell’s receiving yards: 50.5.

OVER 50.5 RECEIVING YARDS: 3,385 votes (55%)

UNDER 50.5 RECEIVING YARDS: 2,780 votes (45%)

Day II: Over-Under on Doug Baldwin’s catches: Four.

OVER 4 CATCHES: 2,347 votes (55%)

UNDER 4 CATCHES: 1,909 votes (45%)

Day III: Will Rob Gronkowski score a touchdown?

YES: 5,781 votes (84%)

NO: 1,061 votes (16%)

Day IV: Will there be a one-yard TD in the Super Bowl?

YES: 1,946 votes (64%)

NO: 1,103 votes (36%)

Day V: Over-Under on Tim Wright’s  receiving yards: 0.5.

YES: 3,556 votes (84%)

NO: 678 votes (16%)

Day VI: Over-Under on LeGarrette Blount’s carries: 13.5.

OVER 13.5 carries: 2,408 votes (68%)

UNDER 13.5 carries: 1,110 votes (32%)

Day VII: Will there be a safety in the Super Bowl?

NO safety: 2,837 votes (86%)

YES safety: 449 votes (14%)

Day VIII: Over-Under on Russell Wilson’s rushing yards: 41.5.

OVER 41.5 RUSHING YARDS: 2,477 votes (66%)

UNDER 41.5 RUSHING YARDS: 1,273 votes (34%)

Day IX: Will there be overtime in the Super Bowl?

NO OVERTIME: 2,357 votes (86%)

YES OVERTIME: 379 votes (14%)

Day X: Will Richard Sherman intercept a pass in the Super Bowl?

NO INTERCEPTION: 1,038 votes (60%)

YES INTERCEPTION: 681 votes (40%)

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Kam Chancellor wearing knee brace, good to go for game

Kam Chancellor AP

Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor was added to the team’s final injury report of the year with a knee injury that he picked up during practice on Friday.

That injury was reported to be a bruise and coach Pete Carroll didn’t seem too concerned about it on Saturday, but he did say the team would take another look at Chancellor during pregame warmups to make sure that all was well. Chancellor was wearing a brace on his left knee during those warmups for Super Bowl XLIX, which were watched by Carroll, defensive coordinator Dan Quinn and members of the medical staff.

A brace may indicate that the injury is something more than just a bruise, but it doesn’t seem to have much chance of keeping Chancellor off the field. Steve Wyche of NFL Media reports Chancellor told him he’s good to go for the game after what he called an “aggressive” workout on the field Sunday.

Chancellor is expected to play a big role in Seattle’s plans to limit Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, something that’s going to be part of any plan to win a second straight Super Bowl title.

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New NFL Media report on #DeflateGate raises plenty of questions

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As the NFL continues to process the events of two Sundays ago regarding the inflation of certain footballs, the media company owned by the NFL has tried to advance the ball from a news standpoint.

The end result creates plenty of questions — questions that undoubtedly will be answered, one way or the other.

Much of Ian Rapoport’s new report isn’t new.  He confirmed without crediting reports from FOX and PFT regarding the surveillance video that shows Patriots employee taking 12 Patriots balls and 12 Colts balls into a restroom.  The new information:  Rapoport describes the man as “elderly,” and Rapoport says the man was in the restroom for 98 seconds.  (PFT previously reported that the man was in the restroom for approximately 90 seconds.)  Rapoport also confirmed without crediting the PFT report that the Patriots turned the video over to the NFL early in the process.

Here’s where it gets interesting.  Chris Mortensen of ESPN initially reported that 11 of the 12 balls were two pounds under the 12.5 PSI minimum.  PFT later reported that 10 of the balls were closer to one pound under the minimum than two.  Now, the media company owned by the NFL reports that “[m]any of [the footballs] were just a few ticks under the minimum.”

So how many are “many”?  And how much is “just a few ticks”?

Making the NFL media report even more confusing is the fact that, when Rapoport discussed the issue on the air, he specifically said that “a couple, three or four were about a pound under and three or four more were right at the line but a little bit under.”

As one league source with knowledge of the situation told PFT in response to the NFL Media report, “Ian’s wrong.”  Apart from the inherent conflict between the written assertion that “many” were “just a few ticks under” and only “three or four” were “right at the line but a little bit under,” it’s possible that both versions are incorrect.

Either way, the truth eventually will be known.  As a different source told PFT on Sunday morning, the NFL logged all PSI readings for the Patriots and Colts footballs at halftime of the AFC title game.  Assuming that this information makes its way into Ted Wells’ report (and surely it will), the hard numbers eventually will become public.

In the end, it will be more than a little awkward, to say the least, if the official NFL investigation report conflicts with the latest NFL Media report on the investigation.

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